Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=220406
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On 'Breaking Bad,' science 'another character'

by Andrea Towers and Leslie Schichtel
Apr 23, 2013


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Andrea Towers/MEDILL

Walter White, the high school chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin, (shown on the screen) may be the lead in AMC's "Breaking Bad." But science plays a major role on the show, said Donna Nelson, a chemistry professor and the show's technical consultant.

Fans of the AMC series “Breaking Bad” are familiar with the main characters of Walter White, a high school chemistry professor turned drug kingpin, and Jesse Pinkman, a down-and-out meth cook. But there’s another prominent character viewers with which may not be so familiar: science.


“The science in the show is bigger than life and often outshines the actors,” said Donna Nelson, science advisor for the popular program. The University of Oklahoma professor, who holds a doctorate in chemistry, detailed how she went from the classroom to the small screen thanks to a chance look at a story in Chemical & Engineering News that led to a meeting with series creator Vince Gilligan.

Despite not having seen the show, Nelson saw an opportunity to not only potentially benefit herself, but also the scientific community.

“I knew that Congress had been very concerned about negative perceptions that have been given in movies and on TV, about science and scientists – and there’s been a lot of incorrect science done in the media,” she said. “But this was someone coming forward and saying that they wanted to keep their audience involved, and someone who was interested in and saw the importance in getting the science correct.”

This dedication to provide accurate scientific details – even if they’re only seen on a script page - is part of the reason that she enjoys working on the show.

While her job includes sometimes rewriting chemical compounds in order to make certain words easier for the actors to memorize, with the exception of the show’s signature bright blue meth, there have never been any glaring scientific inaccuracies.

Nelson’s work has helped her bridge the gap between the entertainment industry and scientists, two industries that normally do not find themselves communicating on the same level. But she believes this collaboration is what her work is all about and cited how science can be shared across communities.

“Scientists get to increase the accuracy of how they’re portrayed, producers and writers learn more about the public, and the public is exposed to correct science in popular culture,” she said. She also added that her work has helped cultivate an interest in science among younger individuals, particularly women.

Those that attended the event were in agreement with Nelson’s views.

“I liked hearing that one person can make a difference,” said Maria Damiano, a graduate student who attended because of her interest in science communication. “And I think it’s important to make sure that the media portrays scientists as friendly and knowledgeable people, rather than the stereotypical mad scientist we usually see.”

Although “Breaking Bad” will end this year, Nelson’s work will continue on both ends of the industry – she’s currently working with the state of Oklahoma on the prosecution of synthetic marijuana sales and she’s been approached to participate in another scientific-based series, “The Big Bang Theory.” But when it came time for questions, there was only one thing that everyone in the room wanted to know – and it had nothing to do with science.

Unfortunately, the chemist was just as in the dark as everyone else, which means fans of the show who are wondering how it all ends will have to wait until the show’s August 11 premiere. But while Nelson couldn’t tell us anything about the new episodes, what she could tell us was just as interesting.

“For something like this – the terminology is different, the goals and considerations are different, the communication is different. It’s like exploring a totally different community, and it’s been great fun.”

For more information on “Breaking Bad,” visit the show’s official website at http://www.amctv.com/shows/breaking-bad.